Notes from Underground - by David Rose

Molds, Mildew, and War: Mycological Research of the U.S. Quartermaster Depot

This column originally appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of Spores Illustrated, the newsletter of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA).

            In 1965, Lucy Kavaler published a little paperback book entitled Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles: The Strange Realm of Fungi. Popular science accounts like this tend to emphasize the “mycologically strange” and after all, why not? Are any of us interested in fungi for the ordinary and pedestrian qualities mycology offers? In her book Kavaler toured the usual circuit of topics – yeast and wine, common molds, haute cuisine, hallucinogens – and in discussing the industrial uses of fungi she touched on the role of the United States Quartermaster Depot in Philadelphia and its role in combating “combat fungi” in World War II. But she only told part of the story.

Imagine an American GI slogging through a tropical swamp in New Guinea, living and fighting in a horrific war for weeks on end in humid jungle environments. War conditions were such that clothing, boots, bedding, tents, and even plastic materials rotted to useless shreds. The combination of factors that led to rapid deterioration of fabrics included intense tropical sunlight, high humidity, drenching rains, salt spray, and contact with soil and sharp-edged coral. Thanks to these extreme conditions bacterial and fungal exposures were ubiquitous, leading to the rapid breakdown of cotton and other military fabrics. Even such critical protective clothing as plastic raincoats made of polyvinyl chloride, of which the U.S. Armed Services issued over 30 million, were not immune from attack by fungi. Researchers finally arrived at the startling conclusion that fungi were thriving not on the surface, but in the very chemical structure of the plastic! And this was not all – fungi that caused damage to optical instruments like gunsights and binoculars actually etched the glass on which they grew. The problem was enormous.

Enter the United States Quartermaster Corps (QMC), the supply division of the U.S. Army. At the outbreak of war the Quartermaster General directed the transport, sheltering, clothing, and provisioning our military forces with all basic material. Founded in 1775, the operations and structure of the Quartermaster Corps evolved into a huge bureaucracy as the strategic and logistical demands of modern warfare became increasingly complex. During World War I canvas products from flags to sleeping bags were manufactured at Philadelphia’s Schuykill Arsenal and in the 1920s this became the site of a Quartermaster Depot that had its own flag-making factory as well as a Research & Development Division.

Supplying our military forces in the Pacific theatre became a nightmarish endeavor fraught with many obstacles: long supply lines, loss of material, food spoilage. It was not long before reports of continual deterioration of canvas, woolen, cotton, and other supplies challenged QMC scientists and industrial technicians to diagnose and find quick but effective solutions to make fabrics more water repellant, flame resistant, and mold resistant. The “fungus issue” was a paramount problem. In 1944 QMC mycologists embarked on a mission of “tropic-proofing” clothing – finding ways to make fabrics and textiles mold- and mildew-resistant in the face of the harshest conditions. In this research they took the lead from Australian scientists at work on the same problem. Just as USDA microbiologists worked heroically to develop methods increasing penicillin production from Penicillium chrysogenum at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory in Peoria, mycologists at the Quartermaster Depot focused their energies to thwart the damaging effects of Penicillium luteum (among other microfungi) to fabrics in tropical war zones.

Researchers at the QMC Military Planning Division launched a laboratory survey of microfungi that had been isolated in war zones and then cultured under laboratory conditions. The isolation of organisms was the first priority; afterwards, the cellulolytic (cellulose-destroying) activity of various fungi could be tested. In one project, the decline in the tensile strength of a series of cotton strips from fungal attack provided a measure of what organisms were the most virulent. In an assay of cellulolytic activity led by W. Lawrence White the research team made several discoveries. All members of the Mucorales and most species of Aspergillus and Penicillium (except the P. luteum series mentioned above) tested negative. However, the team found that all cultures tested in the genera Alternaria, Brachysporium, Fusarium, Myrothecium, Stachybotrys, and Trichoderma tested positive as powerful cellulose-destroyers.

There were several others as well, but many Fusarium species and the fungus Myrothecium verrucaria were singled out as being extremely powerful. QMC researchers conducted further investigations of the physiology and sporogenesis of Myrothecium verrucaria since it was both virulent and prevalent in tropical environments. The QMC research labs reported on their findings in its “Tropical Report No. 22: Fundamental Aspects of the Microbiological Degradation of Cellulose” published in 1947. If reports like this make rather dry reading, it’s important to measure the economic and military significance of its findings, which led to the development of mold-resistant supplies. Yet we must not forget the principle of “microbial infallibility” that all materials are ultimately biodegradable. Given time and the right conditions, the fungi will do their work!

A final note - one mycologist whose research papers I’ve examined and who conducted research at the Quartermaster Depot was Samuel Chester Damon. Damon had studied at Brown University and the University of Iowa and served in the U.S. Navy during the war. After the war he worked as a Taxonomic Mycologist in the Research and Development Laboratories of the Quartermaster Depot, specializing in the study of Hyphomycetes. He conducted taxonomic studies of such Hyphomycete genera as Cephalosporium, Cheiromyces, Epicoccum, Haplaria (Botrytis), Oedemium, and Sepedonium – all household names, to be sure. Unfortunately, Damon’s life was cut short by Hodgkin’s Disease and he died at the age of 28 in 1952. His research papers and herbarium were donated to the New York Botanical Garden where he studied for a time under Donald P. Rogers. Mycology, like the military, has seen its share of unsung heroes, and the tragedy of Damon’s career seems a poignant note in the drama of this story.

Copyright 1995-2002 COMA. All rights reserved.